One of the principal bases of U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama has been to create as constructive relations as possible with Russia, China, and other great powers. The administration had some degree of success in 2010: notably the Russia “reset” policy, and managing inevitable trade and other tensions with rising China. But 2011 looks set to be more challenging as events continue to unfold in Egypt after the mass demonstrations that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and as the United States, Russia and China all prepare for elections in 2012.
In moving forward on a strategy for Egypt, Washington will have to factor in how to deal with reactions and perceptions in Moscow and Beijing, and what implications the still-evolving outcomes in Cairo will have for the complex algorithm of bilateral relations between the United States, Russia and China. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square will have global ripple effects, and Washington must be very careful to avoid falling into the usual stovepipes in thinking through and crafting a comprehensive response. This is not simply an issue for the Arabists or Middle East hands in the administration.
Although China and Russia are clearly very different from Egypt, the implosion of Mubarak’s regime is a stark warning of the difficulties all authoritarian governments face in dealing with the modern world. Mubarak’s fate was shaped by a faltering economy, high unemployment, glaring income disparities, mounting popular frustration, and the unpredictable dynamics created by new forms of public and social media. Although China may be rising economically and politically, the one-party regime perceives serious challenges to its legitimacy, and crisis management is complicated by its collective leadership. Russia is particularly vulnerable given the tight correlation between its economic growth and global oil prices and the fact that, as in Egypt, one man — Vladimir Putin — dominates the political scene and his personal popularity underpins the government’s legitimacy. China and Russia will now be very cautious about opening their domestic political space for more popular participation in their respective leadership transition and presidential elections in 2012 in case this casts increased media spotlight on their shortcomings and brings opposition groups and their supporters onto the streets. They will also watch Washington’s policies in Egypt very closely for any hint that the United States will move to support their domestic opposition groups now that the political winds in Washington seem to have changed in favor of democracy promotion again. For Beijing and Moscow, internal stability will be even more the imperative.